Described as “Knives Out meets Kim’s Convenience,” Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers is Jesse Q. Sutanto’s latest novel. Sutanto is also the author of Dial A for Aunties, which I read and enjoyed a few years ago, among a handful of other youth and adult works.
In this cozy mystery novel, Vera Wong is a widowed sixty-year-old woman living alone and running a teahouse in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Unfortunately, her teahouse doesn’t see many customers—–until one day, she walks in to discover a dead body! Even though the police think there’s nothing suspicious about the scene, Vera knows it in her gut that they have a murder on their hands, and if the police won’t see it her way, she’ll just have to find the killer on her own. When Vera’s teahouse starts seeing new faces popping up after the murder, her suspect list starts to grow, but so does her heart.
Having read and loved Dial A for Aunties, I was hoping for an easy homerun with this. So it saddens me to say it, but this book was disappointing.
I’ll tell you all about my thoughts (spoiler-free) in this review.
Last month, I happily encountered this book on my library’s Lucky Day shelf and immediately started reading it (I had a 7-day limit on my loan, after all).
It was around the halfway point of the novel when I became very distracted by the writing, which needed stronger editing. I became annoyed after I noticed two consecutive chapters that began, “__ can’t remember the last time s/he __.” (For example, “Vera can’t remember the last time she felt so alive.”) After I started noticing it, I found this phrase peppered throughout the whole second half of the book. None of these characters can remember anything about their own lives apparently!
After finishing the book, I read the acknowledgements section, which shed a lot of light on the issues I had noticed: Sutanto was rushed to write this, and it shows. Evidently, Sutanto had pitched the idea to her editor, who in turn asked Sutanto if she could push back all her other projects and move up Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, Sutanto even using the term “#lolsob” as a descriptor of the frantic writing experience. Although I really like the premise of this novel, the writing could have seriously benefited from a more thorough edit and a hard evaluation of the character arcs and plot structure. Which leads me to…
The narrative structure did not work. The title Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers sets the reader’s expectation that Vera will be front and center in this story, but instead it has multiple POVs told from a third person omniscient narrator. Vera is supposed to be our main character, and we would have been better off sticking with Vera throughout the whole book from a first person perspective, as she is the one who is leading this murder investigation. Rather, Vera must share the narration and even fades into the background, practically relegated to “side character” status, as the author clearly related more to the younger characters who crown Vera’s spotlight.
While I did like how their paths intersected, the five side characters’ personalities were all generic and interchangeable. Each character has their one or two interests or motivations, such as painting or growing up under a lot of parental pressure, but aside from that, they all act in exactly the same manner as one another. At the beginning, Julia and Sana are both passive pushovers who are victimized by everyone in their life. Tilly, Oliver, and Riki are just Gen Z/Millenial nice guys. How they speak and act mimics one another to the point that they are indistinguishable, especially the way they all find Vera maddening yet endearing, often commenting with a smile, “She’s just… Vera” to one another. It also bugged me how, with these side characters, all their problems were blamed on one person, and then suddenly all their problems were magically solved with a different person.
At the same time the supporting characters are bland, the “bad” characters are just plain cartoon evil. Even though there are many selfish people out there and abusive relationships are unfortunately common, I was annoyed that the “bad” characters were portrayed as so cruel and one-note.
I also took issue with the way other characters were portrayed oddly for the age they are supposed to be. Emma is two years old, but she reads as several years older than that. Emma is very eloquent, aware, and coordinated, and she does not ask nearly enough questions. I’ve also seen many reviewers comment on Vera’s portrayal—-at sixty years old, Vera’s made to seem extremely elderly, when actually, sixty is… not that old.
The mystery plot itself was fine, but the killer was glaringly obvious to me about halfway through. However, the reasoning was far more insidious than I would have expected. I will refrain from spoiling, but going back to my comment about how some characters are incredibly villainous, I was flabbergasted with what the killer had to say.
I know cozy mysteries are by nature formulaic, and I’m new to reading this genre as an adult, but as much as I was entertained by the first half, I couldn’t help but notice its shortcomings as the book went on.
However! According to Variety, Warner Bros. TV has acquired the rights to produce Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers. Kaling International by Mindy Kaling is apparently attached to this. If this book is adapted to film, I would be wiling to watch it. I strongly feel as though this needs to be a movie, not a show, and I will not watch it if it’s only available through Warner Bros. TV’s streaming platform. If it shows in theaters or on a streaming platform I already subscribe to, I will certainly watch it with higher hopes that my qualms with the writing dissipate in this different medium.
But, as for books, I won’t give up on you, Jesse. I’m still going to read Dial A for Aunties 3.
This review was originally posted to my Goodreads before I edited it for my blog.